A bright and airy atmosphere is possible, even if your ceiling height tops out at eight feet.
living room with layered lighting
Credit: Marius Chira

When you spend a lot of time browsing Instagram or Pinterest, it's easy to think that everybody is living in a home with large windows that flood the space with natural light. The reality is the opposite: According to the National Building Code, standard ceiling heights measure in at eight feet tall. While there is a trend towards building homes with higher ceilings, it's far easier to work with what you have than to move to a new house.

"Achieving a well-lit space in a room with low ceilings can, at first, appear daunting," says interior designer John McClain of John McClain Design. "However, a bright and open feeling is 100% achievable even in difficult spaces." His first move is to paint (or repaint) the ceiling a crisp shade of white. "I use a flat white paint for typical height ceilings, but every so often, the design plan works to allow me to paint the ceiling in a different sheen for lower height ceilings," he says. Opting for higher-sheen shades of white creates a reflective surface that allows light to bounce around the room for a brighter atmosphere. While the effect is dramatic, it's best for ceilings that have a uniform surface-the higher the gloss, the more imperfections will stand out. If yours is in good shape without too many lumps and bumps, McClain recommends a satin sheen.

When you're ready to choose your light fixtures, follow these designer recommendations specifically made for low-height ceilings.

Consider Recessed Lighting

Recessed can lighting creates a brighter ambience that can mimic daylight-and it won't take up any space overhead the way a single fixture would. Unlike the clunky can lights of the '80s and '90s that unintentionally became focal points, it's possible to create a seamless look that won't be noticeable. "We want to see the effects of the lights, not the size of them," McClain says. He opts for white recessed lighting trim kits of up to 4" in diameter that have a wide beam span. Then he spaces them every four feet in a grid pattern.

The output of recessed can lighting makes a huge difference. "The color output of the lighting can give the feeling of natural lighting when it might not be present," McClain says. He recommends looking for lights with an output of 3000-4000k for color temperature.

red office with flush mount light
Credit: Courtesy of Urban Electric Co.

Try a Flushmount

A room-defining overhead fixture can work in a low-ceiling room, as long as it isn't a pendant or chandelier. "Flushmounts are a great source of ambient light, adding to the general illumination of the room by brightening up even the darkest of spaces," says Michael Amato, creative director of The Urban Electric Co.

Like can lights, flush mounts often conjure up mental images of outdated fixtures with frosted glass dome shades placed randomly in a room. For a more modern look, opt for fixtures with faceted shades. Not only is this style the opposite of a builder-grade flush mount, the larger panes of glass are more effective at casting light around a room, like the Yves flush mount in this office designed by Gerald Pomeroy. "With the design of this particular flush mount, [we] focused on diffusing and manipulating light output in order to take away some of the stigma of the overhead light source," Amato says.

Take a Layered Approach

A well-lit room doesn't focus on just one lighting element. Instead, designers create a more inviting atmosphere by illuminating a room at different heights with multiple sources, eliminating dark corners without increasing the wattage of bulbs. Ambient lighting at positioned slightly above standing eye-level and seated eye-level can be particularly good at creating this effect. You can go two ways: Sconces or table. Designer Breegan Jane is a fan of the former. "Scones are a great way to add light that does not take away ceiling space, as well as elevate the design of a space," she says.

Designer Alexander Doherty (who designed the room at top) is firmly in the table lamp camp. "I would rather have 50 table lamps than use overhead lighting, especially in rooms with low ceilings," he says. "Try varying the heights of your lamps to give the room visual interest."

Tweak Your Floor Lamps

Floor lamps are perfect for renters and homeowners who want to add overhead light without any installation projects. McClain takes this form of lighting one step further by having each function as "uplighting." "To do this, simply add your favorite floor lamps and make sure that the light beam extends upward," he says. "The direction of the light beam will immediately draw your eye upward and reflect on the ceiling to give it a heightened appearance."


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